So, what does Novosibirsk, Russia, look like?

Novosibirsk is not a pretty city. In fact, it’s ugly. Picture factories and Soviet apartment complexes, both poorly kept and marred by graffiti. The graffiti, often says “Nactia (or Tanya, or Masha, or Dasha) forgive me! I love you!” But despite the sentiments, it still doesn’t look good. In most urban areas there are few to no trees. Snow now covers the cigarette packs and beer cans that littered the streets in November, while the cigarette packs and beer cans that littered the streets in December remain about half-covered. The general impression is of land laid to waste and cared for by no one. Once, in search of one particular shop in a new area of the city, I realized that absolutely nothing in my surroundings was beautiful, not even the sky, which that day was a gray.

Perhaps the ugliness is why advertisements seem so especially potent in Novosibirsk. I consider myself immune to advertisements in the U.S., and whether or not this is actually true, I know that I am completely under their spell in Russia. The labels on Activia yogurt cups are forest green, like spinach, pine trees, and grass. And when there is neither spinach, nor pine trees, nor grass, I have to get my forest green from somewhere, so I buy Activia yogurt.

The streets are ugly, but inside the shops (especially the higher-end shops) it is different. The expensive shoes, or expensive clothes, or normally priced food in the shops are gleaming. And the advertisements, marketing the shoes, clothes, and foods are best of all. And it is because they include whole worlds, with people, homes, and lifestyles, that look like they belong a million miles away from Novosibirsk.

For example, it’s always summer in advertisements, while here, the winter is long and hard. People pictured in advertisements are beautiful in the way that only either the very young or those with good nutrition and the leisure to care for their health are beautiful, while smoking, stress, alcohol, fatigue, neglect of oral hygiene, and a diet too high in white sugar shows itself on the faces of so many of the people I pass on the street.

“What do people in Russia live for?” a friend asked me, after I returned back from my first stint in Russia (studying abroad). I had been describing to him how hard life is there for the majority of people; we were sitting on a Rhode Island beach on a cool and calm summer night. I thought about it for a while, and eventually came up with: “Well, it’s all the romance of life without the fun.”

Now, a ways through my second stint, I’d like to revise that comment. Russians certainly know how to have fun. Their national sense of humor is midway between witty and bawdy. Holidays, like drinking, are taken to with gusto. The saturation of an average city block with racy lingerie shops hints at a vast stronghold of Russian fun going on behind closed doors.

No, Russia is all of the romance of life without an American standard of physical comfort. This is hard to explain, but there are days when the cold and the grind of city public transport seems like some sort of egging on towards I-don’t-know-what. To stay. In other words, there are days when the quotidien hardships produce a not-wholly-unpleasant desire — not so much for the actual taste of Activia as for the idea of its forest green — and rather than it simply feeling like a slap in the face, I feel that for the romance, I can do without the comfort.

Read Franny’s first install­ment detail­ing daily life in a Russ­ian orphan­age here.

Read Franny’s sec­ond install­ment, con­sist­ing of mus­ings on the city of Novosi­birsk, here.

Read Franny’s third install­ment about immi­grant girls here.

Read Franny’s fourth installment about attempting to escape a Russian hospital here.

Read Franny’s fifth installment on sadness here.